My father was 44 and knew he wasn’t going to make it to 45. He wanted to say something of value that would help me for the rest of my life. I’ve read the letter countless times since my mother gave it to me. One part always stands out. “Right now, you are pretending to be a goof-off,” he wrote. “But I know that one day, you will do something great that will set you among the very best.”
Since the day I was 12 and first read his words, they have lived in my heart. Growing up knowing that my dad believed in me gave me permission to believe in myself. “You will do something great.” He didn’t know what that would be, and neither did I, but at times in my life when I’ve felt proud of myself, I remember my father’s words and wish he were here so I could ask, “Is this what you were talking about, Dad? Should I keep going?”
A long way from 12 now, I realize that my father would have been proud when I graduated from basic training. He would have been proud that I became a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. He would have loved to be there when some admiral pinned a medal on my chest. Lately, though, I’ve come to believe he’d want me to move on to what comes next: to be proud of, and believe in, someone else.
It’s time to start writing my own letters to my children. It’s time for all of us to. Our children look to us with the same unanswered question we had. “Is this it, Daddy? Am I doing good?” It’s why every child growing up says, “Watch me.” Our kids don’t hold back because they are afraid to fail. They are only afraid of failing us. They do not worry about being disappointed. Their fear—as mine was until my father’s letter—is of being a disappointment.
Give your child permission to succeed. If you don’t have children, then write a letter to someone who looks up to you. You know who they are. They are waiting for you to believe in them. I always knew my parents loved me. But trust me: That belief will be more complete, that love will be more real, and their belief in themselves will be greater if you write the words on their hearts: “Don’t worry; you will do something great.” Not having that blessing from someone they love may be the only thing holding them back.